(This is Part One of a two-part series.)
The new question-of-the-week is:
What did you do differently as a teacher in the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic and what, if anything, will you carry over to “normal times” (whenever that time arrives)?
As we enter the fourth school year affected by COVID, it’s worth reflecting how this experience has forced changes in how many educators teach, and which of these changes will stick around after the pandemic is over—whenever that happens.
For my practice, I can think of three changes that I’ve made that should benefit students for years to come.
One is the increased use of technology in my instruction. I do think I used it too much last year (and I believe students agreed). However, I’m confident that I’ll reach an equilibrium in the coming months and years that will balance providing students with enough non-screen time while at the same time creating opportunities for them to learn more when tech provides a value-added benefit.
Secondly, though I’ve always integrated social-emotional learning support into my teaching, the pandemic’s impact has forced me to make it even more central to my classroom practice. This change has not only had a major positive impact on my students—and my own—well-being, but it has also resulted in the creation of a more effective learning environment. With those kinds of outcomes, why wouldn’t I want to continue doing the same for the rest of my teaching career?
Thirdly, again, though I believe I have always valued student voice, the pandemic made it clear to me that everybody needed to be a teacher in my classrooms in order to deal with our crisis situation. I created Student Leadership Teams in each of my classes and their members led small groups, provided critical feedback to me, reflected on their work, and served as mentors to new potential leaders. Stepping up to this level of student input in classes had a bigger positive impact on learning than I had anticipated, so it is definitely another practice that I’ll continue going forward.
Now, it’s time to hear what some other teachers say.
Today, Meghann Seril, Mary Beth Nicklaus, and Tracy Edwards, Ed.D share their commentaries.
‘SEL and Mindfulness’
Meghann Seril, NBCT serves as a 3rd grade teacher, new teacher mentor, and Teach Plus National Senior Research Fellow. She was selected as a 2022 Los Angeles Unified School District Teacher of the Year:
One thing I’ve become more aware of and put into practice in my classroom is SEL and mindfulness. Having been separated through screens, I found that students needed more support in coming back into the classroom to engage with each other in respectful and supportive ways.
In my district we have access to SEL curriculum like Second Step and Harmony SEL. We often start the day with a lesson or activity from one of these programs. What is important about these experiences is that students have vocabulary and strategies for dealing with big emotions, understanding their experiences, and problem solving. Students get to try out things that might otherwise feel awkward or uncomfortable in a supportive space. I use the Inner Explorer app for weekly mindfulness practice with my students. To be honest, I didn’t know how my students would react to sitting in complete silence for a few minutes or doing a body scan of their arms and legs. At first it was rough, with students opening their eyes, finding the prompts challenging. I often reminded my students that practicing mindfulness might be the hardest thing they do all week. But overtime, my students became more comfortable with the practice. They learned to notice when their thoughts were drifting or when they needed to take a stretch break or stand up in the back of the classroom.
On the last day of school, I was so focused on wrapping up our end of the year projects that I skipped our mindfulness practice after recess. Efren, one of my students, asked if we would have time to do Inner Explorer that day because he needed that time to relax and transition from outside to inside. I hope to continue this with my students because I believe that SEL is not an add-on but a foundational piece to setting up our students for academic success.
During the pandemic it was a challenge to connect with parents. Everyone was busy trying to figure out how to make our new learning/working from home arrangement work. I found it odd to not have opportunities for quick chats with parents before and after school. So I thought about how I could still make my classroom accessible for parents. I started by sending weekly emails with general announcements and important reminders. I created videos to explain the writing process and the Common Core State Standards, and I curated online resources to help parents support their students at home. I didn’t want parents to be in the dark about their children’s progress, so I started sending check-in emails at the midpoint of each trimester. These would provide narrative feedback on students’ progress, next steps, and ways to help at home.
I have continued to send these check-in emails to all families. I have found that it helps us to build that team rapport. It helps parents feel that they can ask questions and get support at any time during the year, and not have to wait until parent-teacher conferences.
We don’t know all of the ways the pandemic has impacted our students yet, but I anticipate feeling the impacts for several years to come. I hope as we move forward, we take lessons learned and continue to improve learning for our students and ourselves.
‘Asking Students for Advice’
Mary Beth Nicklaus was a teacher and interventionist in Wisconsin. She recently moved to Minnesota and began teaching there this fall:
Even though this last year marked my 32nd year of teaching, I felt like it was my first. The strange events and conflict surrounding the pandemic bordered on science fiction. The quarantining and being in and out of school affected everyone mentally and emotionally, but the students took the brunt of it. Whether they liked it or not, school always remained the “for sure” place pre-pandemic.
After COVID, that perspective became hard to hold on to. My students had more difficulty staying focused and connected. For me, it marked the end of some of my old tried-and-true teaching methods. I found myself scrambling like a first-year teacher to find different approaches to help gather in and engage my students. I found that when I was honest with my students in where I was struggling, they were happy to help me pick up the slack. Here are three major changes I made to my teaching last year:
- Spend less time center stage. I was never a teacher that stayed in one place while teaching, but now I found myself spending more time in even closer proximity to students. I previously sat at my desk while projecting a lesson so that I could use the cursor to point to things. This time, I used a laser that would also turn the pages. I stood next to students and among the students. I also handed over the laser and let students point to things. Being closer to the students helped them engage and take a more active role in their learning.
- Involve students more in planning and teaching. I began asking students for advice such as, “What do you think is the best way to do this?” especially in the technological realm. They would excitedly tell me what they thought or what other teachers were doing that they liked. They would let me know that “Kahoot would be better than Gimkit” or “We should do a Marvel movie Kahoot for Fun Friday.”
- If a student wants to be the teacher for something, go with it. When in the midst of reading a historical fiction story concerning the Mt. St. Helens eruption, a student asked me if he could share some research he did using Google Earth. He compared Mt. St. Helens before and after the eruption. I gave him permission and he brought it up on the projector. The students were riveted. They also chimed in with things they were noticing. This impromptu lesson created a more intense involvement as we completed the rest of the book.
I don’t know what “normal times” will be like going forward, but last year was a year of letting go of a certain amount of the control I was used to having in my teaching. I observed that letting go brought many disconnected students into our lessons. I believe my future teaching will be less talking to students and more talking with students. I will still plan my lessons and plot where we need to go. However, standing with students and becoming a student myself means that ultimately we take more scenic routes—routes that would not have occurred to me on my own.
Virtual Meetings With Families
Tracy Edwards, Ed.D has an extensive background in teaching, literacy, and educational policy. Tracy currently works as a literacy strategist in Southern Nevada where she supports educators and students to enhance learning through coaching, collaboration, and modeling effective instruction:
No one was ready for March 2020 when COVID-19 struck. Educators across the nation were asked to quickly adjust to many things simultaneously, including how we delivered instruction, how we engaged families, and how we conducted day-to-day operations. I was not one of those teachers who felt drastically underprepared for some of what was demanded of me, since I work at a school that utilized hybrid instructional models even before the pandemic drastically changed how the rest of the country’s schools operated. Even so, the pandemic did mean things had to change and I was forced to think about innovative ways to do the one thing I feel gets missed in too many conversations: engaging families.
Prior to COVID, I did what many teachers did to maintain open lines of communication with families. I sent all the emails. I made all the phone calls. I spent hours crafting cute newsletters so that I could share information. I considered myself pretty good at parent communications—and then COVID struck. Suddenly, the emails went unread, with many families struggling to cope with school shutdowns, job instability, and COVID-related health issues. Suddenly, the weekly newsletter was inadequate, as families had more pressing issues looming daily as they struggled to balance work and the needs of their school-aged children. Suddenly, my opportunities to chat with families briefly before and after school had disappeared, since school had moved completely online.
I began to consider that true access for families had to essentially “look different” as working families navigated increasingly untraditional hours and oftentimes several children needing to access schoolwork online. I spent many hours thinking about the narrative that marginalized communities don’t care about their children, simply because they cannot always show up to school events, when this is simply not the case. We should make it easier for families to be centered in our school communities, not harder.
What worked immediately was posting office hours, where students and their families could pop in to ask questions, get assistance, or simply connect with me. Knowing that I would be online on certain days and at what times meant that families who were unreachable via more traditional means had a quick way to contact me when they needed something. As schools transitioned back to face-to-face instruction, I kept my virtual office hours so that families would always know where they could reach me in a pinch. These virtual office hours are now combined with physical drop-in hours for families in need of extra assistance, and absolutely helped in keeping a strong connection with our most valuable assets last year: our students’ families. I will continue this practice as the new school year begins.
I, along with other teachers at my school, now offer virtual meetings for all of our family events. Open house, report card conferences, individualized education program meetings, and all other meetings where family attendance is crucial are all offered with a virtual option for those who cannot physically attend. As we continue to navigate the economic fallout resulting from COVID-19, it’s important to consider all the ways we have historically excluded parents by requiring in-person participation for all things school related. It’s especially critical now, as we enter a third school year of living through a pandemic, that we center equity when planning for how best to meet the needs of our most vulnerable groups who continue to be disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. Utilizing the available technology to stay connected is just one way to include all families in decisions that impact their children.
Thanks to Meghann, Mary Beth, and Tracy for contributing their thoughts!
Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at email@example.com. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.
You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.
Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.
Just a reminder; you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email (The RSS feed for this blog, and for all EdWeek articles, has been changed by the new redesign—new ones are not yet available). And if you missed any of the highlights from the first 11 years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below.
- It Was Another Busy School Year. What Resonated for You?
- How to Best Address Race and Racism in the Classroom
- Schools Just Let Out, But What Are the Best Ways to Begin the Coming Year?
- Classroom Management Starts With Student Engagement
- Teacher Takeaways From the Pandemic: What’s Worked? What Hasn’t?
- The School Year Has Ended. What Are Some Lessons to Close Out Next Year?
- Student Motivation and Social-Emotional Learning Present Challenges. Here’s How to Help
- How to Challenge Normative Gender Culture to Support All Students
- What Students Like (and Don’t Like) About School
- Technology Is the Tool, Not the Teacher
- How to Make Parent Engagement Meaningful
- Teaching Social Studies Isn’t for the Faint of Heart
- Differentiated Instruction Doesn’t Need to Be a Heavy Lift
- How to Help Students Embrace Reading. Educators Weigh In
- 10 Strategies for Reaching English-Learners
- 10 Ways to Include Teachers in Important Policy Decisions
- 10 Teacher-Proofed Strategies for Improving Math Instruction
- Give Students a Role in Their Education
- Are There Better Ways Than Standardized Tests to Assess Students? Educators Think So
- How to Meet the Challenges of Teaching Science
- If I’d Only Known. Veteran Teachers Offer Advice for Beginners
- Writing Well Means Rewriting, Rewriting, Rewriting
- Christopher Emdin, Gholdy Muhammad, and More Education Authors Offer Insights to the Field
- How to Build Inclusive Classrooms
- What Science Can Teach Us About Learning
- The Best Ways for Administrators to Demonstrate Leadership
- Listen Up: Give Teachers a Voice in What Happens in Their Schools
- 10 Ways to Build a Healthier Classroom
- Educators Weigh In on Implementing the Common Core, Even Now
- What’s the Best Professional-Development Advice? Teachers and Students Have Their Say
- Plenty of Instructional Strategies Are Out There. Here’s What Works Best for Your Students
- How to Avoid Making Mistakes in the Classroom
- Looking for Ways to Organize Your Classroom? Try Out These Tips
- Want Insight Into Schooling? Here’s Advice From Some Top Experts
I am also creating a Twitter list including all contributors to this column.
The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.